Saturday, January 18, 2014

Take Notice

Third of seven homilies preached at the 2014 Kanuga Knitting and Quilting Conference in Hendersonville, NC.

Saturday Morning
Psalm 139:1-5; Mark 2:13-17

It was late in the afternoon, and cold, and I was tired, when I left St. Dominic's hospital last Monday. I was in a hurry to get back to my car.  At the first blast of icy air, I pulled my scarf closer around my neck, buried my hands in my pockets, and turned my head down against the wind.  I knew I was passing other people, but I just didn't have the energy to look up and smile, instead channeling my New York City survival skills from when I went to seminary.  And I had almost made it to the sidewalk that led to clergy parking, just past an evergreen tree still filled with white Christmas lights glowing in memory of loved ones lost.

As I passed by the tree, a bird was chirping, and I thought nothing of it at first, fumbling for my keys in my coat pockets.  But then a fluttering movement startled me, and I looked up.  There I was, eye to eye with a bird in the evergreen, so near I could see the reprimand in his eyes and hear it in his chirps: Notice me!

Notice me!  How often do we rush through our days, or move through them with our heads down against the rush of life, intent on just getting to where we want to be next, and we fail to notice the holiness right in front of us, all around us?  Sometimes it's so big or loud or visible that we cannot help but notice we are in the presence of something sacred - a sunset smeared across the sky, the trumpets of a pipe organ, the presence or prayers of a friend at exactly the moment we needed them.  Most of the time, though, holiness is bird-sized, or smaller even, and it is hard to see when our thoughts are filled with louder, bigger, more pressing things.

We're offered an epiphany when we hear the story of Jesus walking along the lake and noticing the people there - what they are doing, who they are.  Jesus notices Levi, and right then and there, in the midst of Levi's bigger and louder and more pressing - things, Jesus calls him.  Jesus noticed Levi, crowded as Levi was with doubt and loneliness and deceit, a Jewish tax collector for the Roman government.  Jesus noticed him, and so it was a holy place.  Holiness does not mean perfect - it means being loved and chosen by God.

Jesus noticed everyone gathered around Levi's table later that day.  Everyday, ordinary people, sinners, imperfect people, hurting people...we could have been at that table, too.  Jesus noticed them and loved them and claimed them for God.  He had come precisely for them, to make them holy.

God in Christ noticed us, and taught us to notice holiness in ourselves and in others, to see holiness where we might not have ever seen it before, so blinded are we by our busyness and burdens.  Contemplative writer Esther de Waal suggests we take a magnifying glass with us everywhere we go, for holiness can be even smaller than bird-sized.  She remembers being astonished by the beauty of a daisy, and then even more astonished when she knelt to the ground and looked at it up close.

We practice noticing holiness in the common things of life - most of them bird-sized or smaller - right here at our retreat.  Sure, we marvel over expansive quilt tops and exquisite beaded scarves and sweeping shawls.  But remember my friend Rita, the giggling knitter?  It was the stitches that made her laugh, that filled her with wonder and delight.  Simple, little knit stitches.

Look at your work.  Look at the seams, the edges, the undersides (these were Jesus' favorite places to look, after all).  Look at the twist of the yarn, the weave of the fabric, the way colors play off of one another.  Look at someone you don't know well, and the care that they take with their work, or the kindness they show, or the pain that they carry.  Notice...

If we have lost sight of holiness, lost sight of wonder, we can look all around us here and begin to see again - not just to see but to notice, and to discover holiness in every small thing.  Brother David Steindahl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, wrote, "The more alert we become to the blessing that flows into us from everything we touch, the more our own touch will bring blessing."  So it is with holiness, with wonder, with giggle-inducing mystery - the more we notice it, the more it is noticeable in us.

Notice me, God whispers in the holy things and holy people all around us.  What will we see today?  Amen.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Starting on Empty

The second of seven homilies preached at the 2014 Kanuga Knitting and Quilting Conference in Hendersonville, NC.

Friday Evening
Psalm 3:3-5; John 2:1-12

Wouldn't that be a great trick to know, quite a charism we could receive at our baptism into the Body of Christ?  And why stop at turning water into wine?  We could turn cotton into cashmere.  Or burlap into silk!  That would be amazing...

My knitting friend Rita believes we do work miracles - knits and purls and magic loops - and it makes her giggle with amazement how just a little yarn and effort can become mitts or socks or contiguous sleeves.  A quilter told me this morning there are miracles where they are meeting in St. John's, too, when a jumble of triangles or squares or strips suddenly becomes a pattern.  Our empty hands take up needles and pins and fabric and yarn and beads and slowly sometimes, but surely, in the empty space in front of us, a garment or blanket or quilt appears where there wasn't one before.

This evening's gospel tells of Jesus' first miracle, when he turns water into wine.  But there is so much more to the story, more miracles than just the one.  Not only was there no wine left with the wedding party in full swing, but there wasn't even water in them, for Jesus asks for them to be filled. The jars were entirely empty.

We think of emptiness as nothing, but there is, I think, something there - there is space.  A place waiting to be filled, a place waiting to be transformed, a place waiting to become wine or a knitted felt bowl or a quilted wall hanging or holy.  Turning water into wine is impressive, but the real first miracle begins with the empty jars themselves, waiting to be filled by Christ, willing to let Christ use the space, to use the jars, to use us.  Jesus makes things holy by using them, filling them, and then they become not just full, not just transformed, but more than enough.

This morning we reflected on how we're not so empty, but rather filled with worries and fears and grief and frustration and busyness.  A preacher friend of mine has likened this kind of fullness to a sprawling subdivision devouring fields and forests.  Nothing can grow in an area completely covered with manmade things, she writes, just as a relationship with God cannot grow - we cannot see how we are made holy - if every moment is paved with our manmade concerns, manmade in the sense that is seems to be part of our human nature, and not God's to worry and fear and grasp.

But there is always, isn't there, a crack in the pavement, an unexpected flower, a place in the ceiling where something has dug through to the center where Christ is, a place of emptiness waiting to be transformed into new life.  In the season of Epiphany, in a weekend of retreat, we are invited to see how God in Christ has filled all the cracks, all the empty places, whether as small as a sliver in a sidewalk or as big as an ancient wine jar, with himself, blessing that space, transforming it, hallowing it, making it holy.  "Christ with us, within us, behind us, before us," sings St. Patrick's Breastplate.

The miracle, I think, is less about the water becoming wine than it is about the nothing becoming more than enough.  Less about it being wine that fills the jars than it is about Christ's invitation to fill them and his willingness to transform them.  Writer (and knitter!) Molly Wolf imagines what is in that wine in those wedding jars, in our communion cups.  "Who knows," she writes, "what happens in that space, when it mixes together, grace and complex carbohydrates, esters and alcohol and acids and love, inseparable."

We have surely been filled today, even as we empties our worries and distractions and busyness when we arrived.  We have been filled with new techniques, skills, stories, laughter, hot cider, inspiration, the help of friends, grace and complex carbohydrates (or didn't you have your Kanuga toast this morning?).  There is something in front of us - even if it is just a few knitted rows, or a few stitched together hexagons or triangles, or a new friendship, or a new perspective - that wasn't there this morning.  Maybe it is, as Rita believes, something like magic, something like a miracle, like turning water into wine, like making common things holy...yarn and fabric and friends and prayer, inseparable.

Remember that the miracle begins with our willingness to be empty, our willingness to be filled.  Christ behind us, Christ before us, Christ waiting to fill us, Christ within us... Amen.

Getting Here

The first of seven homilies preached at the 2014 Kanuga Knitting and Quilting Conference in Hendersonville, NC.

Friday Morning
Psalm 19:1-4; Mark 2:1-12

How did we get here?!

The last few days, for me anyway, are a blur.  I preached on Sunday, but it seems so long ago I can't remember a word of what I said.  I made hospital visits, went to nursing homes, met with parishioners, attended staff meetings.  There was laundry, and grocery shopping, and bill paying, and science fair project supervising.

How did we get from all our demands and deadlines, our to-do lists, the drudgery that fills our day-to-day here, to Kanuga, where the only thing that's demanded of us is that we be on retreat?  Where our only deadlines are the bugle calls that summon us to meals?  Where the only things on our to-do lists are knitting, quilting, massages, hikes, prayer, wine, or, if we choose, nothing?  Where our only drudgery...well, our meals are cooked for us, our dishes are washed, our beds are made...I've been weaving in countless ends in my knitting, but here even that seems like fun.

How did we get here, from our daily, ordinary lives to this once-a-year place of uncommon beauty, of uncommon peace, this place so far removed from our everyday experience, this place where we know God dwells?   The closer we get to a time of retreat, whether it's our lunch break or a day off or the weekend, or getting away together in the mountains...the closer we get, the further away it can feel, crowded out by ordinary life so that we have to dig down through all our stuff just to get out the front door.

Here we are, though.  How did we get here?  I got here with the help of friends.  We helped each other get here, in fact, strategically loading up four knitters' worth of luggage and yarn into our car, driving all those hours from Mississippi to North Carolina.  And before that, my colleagues helped me clear space in my work calendar at the Cathedral, taking on some tasks that are ordinarily mine.  And my family told me to go, my husband and my son, certainly because they know how much this weekend means to me but also, I think, because with me out of the picture they get to eat pizza and watch Tron all weekend.

Here we are, then.  We have all arrived, and indeed, we are on retreat.  This is a holy, hallowed, set apart place and time.  In the Church, of course, this time is set apart as the season of Epiphany, of the world coming to see God not in extraordinary experiences of burning bushes and angel choirs but in the person of Jesus Christ, walking around in people's ordinary, everyday lives and revealing in them remarkable things.

The gospel readings in this season tell stories like the one we hear this morning.  Someone who is paralyzed, perhaps by illness, or maybe for us it's work or worry or fears or grief or anxiety or whatever keeps us so busy or so weary or so worn down that we can barely move...someone who is paralyzed meets Jesus, not in heaven or at church but in the manger, on the road, by the sea, in a house, in the midst of common life, and there, in the middle of it all, of the drudgery and the day-to-day, he invites them to move again with purpose and peace and joy.

Here's what I think.  The paralytic's friends were so determined that he be free from what kept him from living fully, to uncrowd him from what paralyzed and pained him and pushed him to the edges of life, that they lowered him into the center of where Jesus was, where Jesus was already at home.  Epiphany is precisely about that center, that place where God dwells, about Christ's home being here. Not just here at Kanuga, not just anywhere we go on retreat, but here in this world, in the midst of our days crowded with people or obligations or sorrow or illness or work or whatever binds us, paralyzes us, pains us.

Christ dug through all of that to meet us where we are, at our center, to make his home in the same places where we are busy, where we are weary, where we are distracted, where we are hurting.  I don't mean that a time of retreat, and certainly a place like Kanuga, isn't holy - of course it is.  It's just that, everything and everywhere else is, too.  "There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred," wrote Madeleine L'Engle, who deeply loved Kanuga.  "There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the greatest messages of the Incarnation."

Christ came to hallow not the places that were already holy - temples and churches and retreat centers - but the places that didn't seem to be, to make the common holy, to make our everyday lives holy.  "Christ be with me, Christ within me," sings St. Patrick's Breastplate, that great Celtic hymn, and indeed the house where Jesus dwells is right here, in our hearts.  He is that close.  That near.  That common.

However we got here, may we, in the presence of so many faithful friends, see Christ in the beauty of this place of retreat, in the luxury of time, and in the absence of drudgery.  May we also begin to see, because as knitters and quilters and their companions we know something about how fabric is made, how the smallest stitches become something large enough to enfold...may we also begin to see that the thread that binds this time and place to the places we left, and the places we are going to when we leave here, is Christ's loving and redeeming and patient and healing presence in it all, Christ's presence in the home of our hearts.  Together, helping one another, let us dig down through all that crowds out our peace and our hope and our joy, and here let us begin to move again.  Amen.